15 May 2013

Scottish Sport climbs guide is here

Finally, we have the first stock of the new Scottish Sport Climbs guidebook by the SMC. It’s in the shop here. It has certainly been a long time coming. I first submitted a draft of the sections I wrote in November 2004! A lot of bolts have appeared across the lowlands, highlands and islands since then, so the book is a lot fatter than it would’ve been if it had been released at that time. So the wait has an upside.

Flicking through the guide as I took it out of the box, I was struck by the great selection of sport crags all over the country now. There are 1300 routes in the guide, on 100 crags. Who out of the slightly older generation of Scottish climbers would’ve thought we would have 1300 sport climbs in Scotland. That’s great! As you’d expect from an SMC guidebook it’s a nicely produced book with careful descriptions, good maps and plenty of nice pictures to inspire. So many of Scotland’s new routing activists have been very energetic over the past decade and the options now available for routes to enjoy has basically exploded. Now, there are sport crags for us to visit no matter what corner of Scotland you find yourself in or fancy travelling to. Also, the diversity of locations mean that I can’t see many days of the year where there won’t be some dry rock on which to clip bolts somewhere in the land.

Kudos to all who made the effort to open new sport routes, as well as all the authors and producers of the guide. It is so badly needed. Talking to the new generation of young sport climbers coming into climbing through Scotland’s climbing walls, it frequently nagged at me that so many are unaware of the lovely crags that are out there. Some of them in stunning, wild and far flung locations like Gruinard in the north west. Some of them just up the road from our major towns and cities. 

The guidebook brought back some nice memories for me of places like Dunglas just outside Glasgow, where I did my first 6b (Negotiations With Isaac)and 6c+ (The Beef Monster). I remember being very excited when Andy Gallagher asked me to give him a belay on the first ascent of Persistence of Vision (7a+) after watching him bolt it. A year after my first 6c+, my first 7c+ (Dum Dum Boys) was a liberating experience and straight away I wanted to get to the ‘happening crags’ of the day.

I found myself at Steall for the first time shortly afterwards, abseiling down Cubby’s project (Ring of Steall 8c+) and being totally inspired by how poor the holds were. The whole ambience of hard physical climbing in beautiful highland surroundings was where it was at for me. So in the following years, we made after school/uni/work hits to Glen Ogle, Dunkeld and Loch Lomondside sport crags, with weekend trips to Tunnel Wall, Weem and the Angus Quarries.

Once I got involved in exploring new routes, under the influence of Dave Redpath and Michael Tweedley, I immensely enjoyed tearing about bendy roads in Argyll developing crags like Tighnabruaich and eventually the Anvil.

One thing that I like about Scottish sport climbing particularly is that the easier graded routes in the 6s and 7s are often so much better to climb than those on the continent. In Spain or suchlike, the majority of the time, the hard routes on big overhanging sweeps of limestone are the most inspiring lines, while the easier lines can sometimes be either a bit scrappy or, dare I say it, a little boring. As with our trad, the variety of rock types we have in Scotland often make for much nicer routes in the lower and mid grades too. However, if you are into hard stuff, the two hardest routes in the book (Hunger, 9a and Fight The Feeling, 9a) give as good climbing as you’ll get anywhere. Both were climbed in good conditions in the summer and you wont find any queues or some barky dog wondering about eating your lunch at the base of the crag. The only negative on offer from Scottish sport climbing is, of course, the midge. Just remember that the wind direction is as important as the rain when you look at the forecast. Choose a crag exposed to a breeze on the day, and you’re sorted.

Enjoy the guide, enjoy the climbing. It’s here.

Review: Scarpa Instinct VS

I’ve a bit of backlog list of things to review on this and my main blog, but lets start with what will always be right up there in any rock climbers list of choices to get right - rockshoes. Scarpa have brought out a string of pretty awesome shoes over the past year, not just in rockshoes. The Rapids are amazing for running and general wear, and look pretty damn good. Since I live in an ever so slightly wet country and spend my life in the outdoors, I still spend half my life with my feet in Baltoros (replacing the old ZG65s which were also ace) for walking around boggy mountains. 

When the new Instinct VSs came out I was obviously champing at the bit to see what tweaks Scarpa had made to the balance of attributes that make up a good rockshoe. As always before reviewing shoes, I need to explain my perspective a little first. I’m 34, and a life of jumping around on mountains and falling from great heights has given me some quality battle scars. I’ve badly broken both ankles, have Hallux Valgus and sesamoiditis in both feet. Oh, and a touch of equinus. Sound bad? It is. I can barely walk for the first 30 seconds when I get out of bed in the morning. The last time I had my feet X-rayed, the doctor failed to spot my dislocated sesamoid because the bones of my feet were so out of alignment they all looked dislocated. All she could offer was a horified “your feet look weird!”.

The lesson? Get rock shoes that fit your feet well. Dont persist with a painful, ill fitting buying error. Don’t hit the ground from a great height and take your rockshoes off when you don’t need them on. 

So you’ll understand if I have high expectations for the fit of rockshoes. Scarpa shoes generally fit my feet extremely well, the care put into the design and manufacture is obvious. However, everyones feet are different. The original Instinct slippers I found great on steep ground but just not supportive enough for me. That’s probably down to the physiological tale of woe I just described. I know from climbing with Tim Emmett that he felt they were perfect for him on long trad pitches or whatever else. I know a lot of folk are going for softer shoes these days, probably because of the proportion of time spent climbing indoors, but I still like the support. In this area nothing has yet surpassed the design of the Stix, which I still wish Scarpa would revive.

However, the new Instict VS does seem to have a little more support and I found them great on long sport onsights on vertical terrain. On 45 degree, tensiony climbing where grabbing small edges with the toes is the critical attribute, they are second to none. Other shoes in the Scarpa range such as the Boostic are also unbelievably good at this though. The biggest performance development with the Instict VS is probably the heel, which has been completely redesigned. It’s compact, supportive and extremely powerful. I used to set aside a special pair of heelhooking boots for different types of heelhook on really hard projects. Magos for grabbing rough spikes or ripples, Spectros for raw power and stiffness on bigger more positive edges and a very small pair of Stix for rounded stuff. Now, the Instict VS does all of this at least as good as any other shoe I’ve tried. The story is exactly the same with toehooking - the VSs are as good as anything I’ve tried, and I toehook a LOT. 

The proof of the pudding is how much they get chosen for different types of terrain. I’ve been using them about 80% of the time on steep sport routes, any type of bouldering or indoor training. My first route in them was an 8c on the Costa Blanca in January. There was a heelhook rest just before the crux. I had two other pairs of shoes with me but kept finding my heel was sliding out of the thin, polished heelhook so I couldn’t really relax on the shake out. My VSs were quite small and were a bit tight for a Scotsman adjusting to the Spanish heat straight after shivering on Ben Nevis. But when I put them on, I could get much more bite on the heelhook and did the route soon afterwards.

Fit wise, they are prefect for me, barring two points. First, the toe hooking rubber running right down to the toes feels a little cramped and doesn’t quite give my toes room to expand. So they do need to come off quite regularly for comfort. Second, as with the Instincts, when standing on slabby terrain, big footholds or on the ground, there is too much weight centered over the sesamoids. However, those youngsters yet to grind their unsuspecting sesamoids to dust will wonder what the hell I’m on about.

The single velcro cinch works perfectly and doesn’t get in the way of any moves, especially toe hooking, which is the achilles heel for the Boostics which have a the second velcro tab set quite far down the shoe. Sizing wise, they seem to me consistent with the rest of the Scarpa range of rockshoes. I'm 41 in street shoes and use a 40 in VSs for training and also have a 39.5 for hard redpoints only. If I wanted to wear them all day on multipitch trad I might go for 40.5.

So I’d say they come with a full recommendation from me for any time of climbing. I think you’ll be very impressed. They’ll even be great on trad terrain unless your feet are as much of a mess as mine are.

A final more general note on rock shoes. I still hear from climbers in coaching clinics that they worry that shoes like the VSs and other ‘performance’ shoes that appear to have an aggressive turn down on the toe are not for them because they ‘look uncomfortable’. This is a misunderstanding. It’s true that turned down shoes can feel a little strange before they are worn in. But providing the fit hugs your foot evenly with no painful pressure points, they should be comfortable to wear once they break in. And when that happens they will no longer feel weird when standing on the ground, but retain the body tension power on steep ground. I’ve always felt that it would be nice if retailers had pre-worn pairs (not so much that they are minging though!) for people to try on so they can get over the initial novelty of how good rockshoes feel on the feet for the first time. Hence why if you ever have a boot demo at your local climbing wall - take advantage of it. You might just find that model that was designed just for your feet and will make rock climbing genuinely more pleasurable.

13 May 2013

New stuff in the shop

We’ve just added three new books to the shop, all very different.

First up is The Boulder by Francis Sanzaro, published by the Stone Country Press. What does it mean for us to be involved in bouldering? How does it’s movement and sporting challenges relate to other activities like Parkour, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, or even art disciplines like painting. Are you doing it to engage in a sport? Simply play on rocks? Compete with others? Enjoy movement. Possibly all of these and many more reasons besides.

The boulder explores the philosophy of bouldering, what it can mean for boulderers and how we can use and examination of this to improve both our bouldering and what we take from it. For many readers, discovering bouldering will no doubt have changed your life. But  surely starting out in a new found activity isn’t the end of the story? There are many life changes to be found as you learn more and more about what bouldering is doing for you. I would expect most readers to be helped along this path. It’s in the shop here.

Next is Fiva by Gordon Stainforth, which is only recently out but fast accumulating a big reputation for a brilliant read. Gordon was previously more famous for his excellent photography books. Eyes to the Hills was one of the first mountain books I borrowed from my library as a 15 year old novice climber. We don’t tend to get many mountaineering stories in the shop, but Gordon’s big win with this book at the Banff Mountain festival in November prompted us to check it out and we were impressed. I won’t say too much about it other than it describes a death-on-a-stick epic on Troll Wall in Norway. If you know anything about how serious the Troll Wall is, the Fiva route sounds particularly toe-curling just to read about. Much recommended by us if you like reading about proper adventures. It’s in the shop here.

Finally, and with some satisfaction I can finally report that we have the first stock of the new Scottish Sport Climbs guidebook by the SMC. I wrote a reasonable chunk of the text myself, and since I first had a draft of ‘my’ crags completed in November 2004, I can appreciate as much as anyone how long it’s been in coming. A more substantial introduction to the book is coming in another post in a minute, but for now the book is in the shop here.

8 May 2013

Injury case study: Knee ligament tear from drop knee

Watch the video below with Dave Graham (which is entertaining anyway) and check out the knee ligament injury he suffered while doing a deep drop knee move.

This injury does happen from time to time in climbers without much warning, so all climbers should read this for prevention’s sake.

One month ago I suffered a very similar injury in an almost identical scenario while training on my climbing wall at home. The striking thing about the injury was that there seemed to be very little I could have done to foresee the injury. I’d just performed the same move several times (falling higher up the problem). The only difference was that my foot didn’t hit the foothold at the perfect angle. But this didn’t feel dangerous or painful until the moment of injury. So was it actually preventable? Well, thats debatable.

Prevention of sports injuries has two main strands. Firstly, by preparing the body for the demands of the sport, usually by strengthening the relevant areas and making sure they are the correct length (stretching muscles to make them longer is not always good). Secondly, by learning about the scenarios that cause the tissue to fail. In some injuries, like the one I’m describing, that’s acute tearing of otherwise symptom-free tissue. In others, it’s degeneration that builds up over years and gradually shows progressive symptoms. 

Taking these strands in turn, is there anything that climbers can do to strengthen the knee to protect it from injuries in drop knees? I’d say it’s pretty difficult. The muscles most forcefully activated during a drop knee depend largely on the exact positioning of the foothold and leg. Moreover, much of the force on the foothold is generated by passively ‘sitting’ on the medial collateral ligament (MCL) that runs down the inner side of the knee. Ligaments are strengthened by general use of the joint. Thus, the best way to strengthen them against the stress they are placed under during drop knees would be to do a lot of drop knees. Albeit less aggressive ones.

The simple maxim when it comes to prevention of tendon and ligament injuries is “tendons don’t like rest or change”. When they are rested, they become weaker. When you increase the demands placed on them, they take a long time to adapt. So perhaps the best protection would be to keep the leg musculature and knee ligaments strong with regular climbing involving this type of move for as much of the year as possible. Supplementation with basic leg exercises with weights or body weight may be a good idea if a specific weakness has been identified that is relevant. But at least some of the time, these exercises are so much of a shot in the dark that they may have little real effect in such specific movement patterns as demanded by climbing. Only a really good physiotherapist or an expert in stability and functional exercises is realistically going to be able to identify these weaknesses through manual testing of an individual. Are you about to go and track down an expert and book a session based on this blog post? Thought not.

So that leaves mitigation of the injury scenario itself. It’s probably fair to say I use drop knees more than most. I’m weak and it allows me to climb things that I otherwise couldn’t touch. I previously irritated my right MCL by trying the crux drop knee on Ring of Steall (8c+) too many times in a row. You can see it in the video in BD's new catalogue here (page 9) Bizarrely, the altered movement I was forced to do because of the pain led me to find the beta tweak I needed and it tipped the balance for success on the route. Most injuries have an upside, somewhere.

I think I’ve got away with only two fairly minor knee injuries in 20 years despite all those drop knees because I learned to take them seriously as a dangerous move. I always take great care to concentrate and ‘feel’ the feedback from the knee to see if I’m properly and safely set before making the hand movement. Also, as I make the hand movement, I remember to keep thinking about the knee so I’m ready to react and let go if the ligament starts to strain or tear. Finally, if it’s a really deep drop knee and and on a redpoint project, I’ll make sure and have a couple of non-committal tries at the move to get a feel for it before fully committing.

Fast movements in such a dangerous position as a deep drop knee are probably more dangerous. Ligaments are ‘viscoelastic’. If they are stretched quickly, they are stiffer. When ligaments are injured at slow speeds, they tend to pull off a chunk of bone (avulse) at their end. When the movement is fast, it’s the body of the ligament itself that tears. So movements where you drop the knee and then move the hand all in one rapid motion are of particular concern.

Another issue pertinent to climbing is the cold. Especially in bouldering, hard ascents are often done in cold conditions with the core body temperature and especially lower limb temperature rather low. Probably dangerously low. In my board I train in just a pair of shorts and my favoured training temperature once warmed up is about -1, with the window wide open to let the highland winter winds in for maximum friction. Ligaments and tendons are stiffer when cold as opposed to being more elastic or compliant when warm. Moreover, joint proprioception (movement and position awareness) is poorer if the joint is cold. Keeping your knees warmer might be a good idea. If you’ve been getting colder for a while, put your shoes back on and run up and down the hill with your duvet jacket for a while. You’ll probably get on better on the boulder too!

Taking all this together, perhaps I injured my MCL because I was cold, I’d just taken a break from rock climbing to do some winter climbing for a month, I was having a good session and may have got a little overconfident. Lastly, it was late in the evening. That is usually my preferred time to train as I’m a night owl. But that particular day I’d done some manual labour moving rocks and mixing cement, followed by a 13 mile run at a good pace, followed by 3 hours of bouldering at my limit. I was probably getting tired and might have been better to stop the session 10 minutes earlier (it was pretty much my last problem before I was going to stop and go to bed). 

On the other hand, the tries immediately preceding the injury went without incident. This goes to show that we always tread a fine balance between training hard enough and injury. The right path is only impossible to see without hindsight.

I got away lightly, I had a partial tear of the MCL and a partial tear of the semimebranosus tendon (hamstrings) which I’ve already largely recovered from in just one month. A bigger concern in drop knees is that they often tear the knee menisci and or the ACL ligament with much more serious complications for the long term recovery and health of the knee. That little nightmare is too long for a blog post, but I’ve just finished writing about them for my injuries book Rock ‘til you drop. There will also be a little more on drop knee injuries in the book, since the MCL isn’t the only ligament hereabouts which can be injured by this move and some of the other ligaments are not so straightforward to rehabilitate.

In summary: Do drop knees, they are a killer climbing technique. But be careful. Concentrate, keep warm and do them year round to keep your knees strong.

7 May 2013

Old school drills - foot off bouldering

I guess foot off bouldering was what folk did before campus boarding got so popular. It’s now pretty out of fashion as a strength training tool - campusing is cooler. But is it better?

In some ways it might be (since noones ever tested it properly, noone can tell you either way). It’s more basic which might mean you end up pulling harder. It’s on nice skin friendly rungs which might mean you get more high quality sets done. However, it’s main problem is probably that such a large proportion of climbers doing regular campusing lose all the gains and more by getting injured on it.

Although it’s currently uncool, foot off bouldering might be at least as effective for gaining strength since it’s varied, could be a little safer if you do it right and might be slightly less bad for your technique that campusing. The irony is of course that although foot off bouldering is out of fashion, some indoor boulderers footwork repertoire is so bad that their normal climbing isn’t that far off being foot off anyway.

Now, This post isn’t actually about getting stronger, I just wanted to get the above paragraph out of the way. It’s actually about technique. Foot off bouldering can be a useful technique drill for those who are seriously unaccustomed to movement on steep rock.

There still exists a cadre of climbers who do not like to move dynamically. There are different reasons why they got this way. Some are scared to fall off, so won’t slap for anything. Some are used to balancy, slabby trad climbing, or were brought up on outdoor vertical cliffs such as granite walls. Some simply haven’t done enough of the steeper stuff.

Without a coach, these climbers might never break their static habit on overhanging terrain. It’s just too engrained. Even if they try, they’ll still initiate the move by pulling up and locking off, rather than dropping down to leave room to accelerate. They’ll hesitate, hang on for too long, get pumped and come down. All of this reinforces the feeling that steep climbing is beyond them.

If there is no coach to break this habit down bit by bit, a drill is needed to force it. Moving statically is all but impossible with the feet off, so long as the holds are the correct size. Foot off bouldering on steep bouldering walls (45 degrees is good but anything between around 35 -horizontal will work) can forcefully break the habit of trying to find a static way, and start to build understanding of the balance required to move dynamically on steep ground.

This balance is hard to describe without showing you. But here is an example. When you start move dynamically on a 45 degree overhanging wall to a distant hand hold, your upper body feels like it is falling backwards. It feels unnatural. Your subconscious naturally wants to hang your ass down, making your trunk more vertical. But this takes weight off the feet. However, if you pull the ass in and try to reach the hold without the ‘falling backwards’ feeling, you have to stay too low to be able to reach the hold. If you watch relative novices climbing steep ground in climbing walls, you see this movement confusion happening constantly.

In a sense, bouldering foot off, breaks part of this unnatural feeling. It forces familiarity with dynamic motion between every hold. It no longer ‘feels wrong’. Second, it gets you used to the feeling of jumping backwards across the overhang, and help you realise that balance is restored when you grab the next hold.

Once you have mastered this, you can deal with the fact that keeping your feet on means your body stays more horizontal and the falling backwards feeling is even more pronounced. Steep climbing is a learned skill which is counter intuitive. For novices, it’s ok that it feels wrong at first, even if you are an expert climber on vertical terrain. Once you become expert, the feeling of staying more horizontal as you make the move that felt so wrong gradually becomes the part that feels right; it means you will have body tension to keep your feet on when you get the next hold.

A few carefully chosen foot off problems towards the end of your session might be all that is necessary. If jugs are all that you can move on, that’s fine. But as soon as you can, move onto good holds but slightly smaller than jugs. It’s probably better to do small moves on smaller holds than bigger moves on buckets. If you are climbing on set problems at the wall, you might need to tweak them by adding the odd different coloured hold because some moves just wont work foot off.

Rules of thumb:

- If you do this so much that it becomes your party piece, you are doing too much and doing more will become detraining.
- The idea is to move dynamically, but with control. Try to learn how to accelerate in the preparation for the move, make a controlled lunge for the next hold, and decelerate using both the arms and your swinging legs to absorb the swing.
- Violent thrashy moves are a fine way to get injured and throw away all your gains.
- Start small. It doesn’t matter if this is a single move to a hold 2 inches above. Progress from here.